Following Tuesday's train derailment in Collegedale, the priority for local officials Wednesday was to reopen at least one lane on Apison Pike while crews continued repairs to the rail line and crossing.
The collision that caused the train to leave the tracks happened around lunchtime Tuesday when a semitrailer driven by a Georgia truck driver hauling a 134-foot concrete bridge beam was stopped across the rails at the traffic light at the Tucker Road-Apison Pike intersection, authorities said.
Unable to move forward with cars stopped ahead at the light, the truck was struck by a Norfolk Southern train, injuring two railroad employees on the train.
Collegedale police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol are investigating the truck's role in the incident, Collegedale police Assistant Chief Jamie Heath said Wednesday in a phone interview. It's illegal for certain vehicles in certain situations to proceed to cross a railroad track unless the vehicle can reach the other side safely.
The driver of the truck has been identified as 64-year-old Jorge Luis Cruz-Vega, of Martinez, Georgia, Heath said in a follow-up statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
"The company that employs Cruz-Vega is Starrette Houston Trucking LLC out of Augusta, Georgia," he said. "This remains an active investigation. Any further comments regarding pending charges against Cruz-Vega will be addressed once the investigation has been closed."
A person who answered the phone Wednesday at Starrette Houston Trucking said the company had no comment on the incident.
A 14-second video of the collision posted online showed the dramatic crash starting seconds before impact.
The truck was hauling the beam to a Tennessee Department of Transportation project on Apison Pike. The collision broke the massive concrete beam in half as the train dragged it hundreds of feet before the locomotives and some of the freight cars came off off the rails near the Wolftever Creek Greenway.
The area is a major shipping location for McKee Foods in Collegedale.
"Their top priority... was to open up at least one lane on Apison Pike because there's about 175 deliveries a day coming through -- and that's 18-wheelers carrying Little Debbies -- so it was top priority to get one of those lanes open," Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Amy Maxwell said Wednesday by phone. "Plus, there are other additional 18-wheelers rolling in, too, that are assisting with the construction project on Apison Pike."
Maxwell praised first responders who got to the scene fast and reduced the effect of the fuel spill.
"They were able to work quickly and grabbed a lot of their absorbent boom and get that contained quickly to stop it from going downstream in the creek," she said. "They're done with the diesel spill."
Fuel still held in the locomotives was pumped out, she said.
Train derailment in Collegedale on Dec. 20, 2022
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials have joined emergency officials and railroad crews on the scene near Wolftever Creek and its tributary, Wilkerson Branch, agency spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said Wednesday in an email.
"Diesel absorbent booms and pads have been deployed and vacuum trucks are also being utilized to recover the spilled diesel," Schofinski said. "Cleanup contractors plan to remove the contaminated soil so it can be properly disposed of. At this time, no additional environmental impacts have been observed by TDEC staff and no drinking water intakes are in proximity of the spill."
The railroad is responsible for handling the cleanup, and state officials will monitor the situation as work progresses, she said.
Federal Railroad Administration data for 2021 ranks Tennessee 11th in the nation for the number of collisions involving trains, with 57.
Records show three of the 57 collisions in 2021 resulted in fatalities. Eight other collisions resulted in injuries. Nationally, 2,145 train crossing collisions occurred in 2021 resulting in 234 fatalities and 669 injuries.
The federal agency is investigating the incident, but it doesn't issue preliminary findings or make initial determinations of cause, spokesman Cory Gattie said Wednesday in an email.
Accident investigations vary considerably in length and duration, but in general the agency seeks to complete them within six months, Gattie said.
Once the probe is finalized, it will be posted on the agency website.
Gattie said there is no requirement for trucking companies to notify the federal agency or railroad operators of movement of loads over railroad crossings.
Maxwell said Norfolk Southern crews began clearing debris and rebuilding the track almost immediately.
Railroad crews worked through the night into Wednesday, according to Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker.
"The railroad should be reopened later this morning," Spielmaker said Wednesday in a phone interview. "We completed track work overnight and now we're just working on some of the communications and signal systems."
Crews anticipate an estimated 24-hour turnaround on repairs from the time of the collision about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, he said.
The train consisted of 52 cars and three locomotive engines, he said, and all three locomotives and 10 of the cars were derailed in the collision.
The rail repairs aren't too much of a problem for McKee Foods. The company's operations are alongside the tracks and the Apison Pike widening project, and the company also is in the middle of its own expansion project, according to company spokesman Mike Gloekler.
"McKee Foods receives very little by rail anymore, and none of those ingredients delivers directly to the Collegedale plants," Gloekler said in an email. "What little we do get by rail, we receive at an offsite location some ways down the rail line. Our local-operation tanker trucks run a route back and forth to bring those ingredients here to the manufacturing sites."
Gloekler said McKee's employees have been advised to prepare to take extra time in their commute. He said much of McKee's semitrailer traffic was rerouted to University Drive and Standifer Gap Road to ease snarls and keep deliveries on schedule.
Maxwell said the scene Tuesday was shocking.
"All I could think about when I arrived on the scene was it reminded me of watching the movie 'The Fugitive,'" she said, referring to the scene in the movie showing the dramatic collision between a train and a prison bus. "The locomotive and the destruction and everything, that's what it reminded me of."
— Trains and cars don’t mix.
— The train you see is closer and faster-moving than you think.
— Be aware that trains cannot stop quickly.
— Never drive around lowered gates — it’s illegal and dangerous.
— Do not get trapped on the tracks; proceed through a highway-rail grade crossing only if you are sure you can completely clear the crossing without stopping.
— If your vehicle ever stalls on the tracks, get out and get away from the tracks, even if you do not see a train. Locate the Emergency Notification System sign and call the number provided, telling them about the stalled vehicle.
— At a multiple track crossing waiting for a train to pass, watch out for a second train on the other tracks, approaching from either direction.
— When you need to cross train tracks, go to a designated crossing, look both ways and cross the tracks quickly, without stopping. It’s unsafe to stop closer than 15 feet from a rail.
— Always expect a train. Freight trains do not follow set schedules.
Source: Operation Lifesaver
Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.